When should you not use your expert mind?

My brother-in-law is an accomplished, self-taught, baker and his sourdough bread is amazing. Certainly the best I’ve tasted outside of France.

I was eager to bake bread like his for myself. This week, with his tuition I prepared and baked my first loaf. It wasn’t perfect – slightly burnt. I’ve subsequently baked another couple of loaves. They weren’t perfect either. Even so, they tasted much better than supermarket bread.

Practical learning is easier, faster, and deeper when I’m in a receptive state. This is beginner’s mind, where I’m free from ego, expert habits and preconceptions. Open to learning by doing, and gaining practical insights from mistakes and corrections, failures and successes.

I may start by observing and modelling the teacher’s behaviour, but then I prefer to let go of the ‘textbook’ approach and try each step for myself. I learn best by experiencing fully through my own senses what the process is like, for me.

Beginner’s mind and working with clients.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few

― Shunryu Suzuki

To be effective in a consultative role we must first put aside our preconceptions about the client, their situation and any potential solution. Then we need to ask questions and listen to what the client says – without running an agenda. The mental image I use to remind myself of this is to “start typing on a clean sheet of paper”.

So, what type of questions should we be asking the client?

With an expert mind the tendency is to ask loaded questions. We focus on issues, normally with a view to positioning our services. That’s a mistake.

Better to lead with questions about communication and relationship first. Start by asking about the role the client wants you to play, their agenda and desired outcome. The client’s expectations might surprise you.

This ‘contracting’ stage of engagement can easily be overlooked in the rush to get down to business. We attend so many client meetings it’s natural to assume an understanding of why clients have invited us in and the value of our contribution – that’s the expert mind at work again. In reality we don’t know what the client wants from us, or the value they perceive we offer, until we ask.

And, of course, that’s just the start.

Where else does your expert mind get in the way?

The bottom line

Get real: When you think you have the answers before you start a client meeting … you probably don’t. Ask questions and listen.

Get prepared: Clear your mind. Notice any presuppositions you might have about the client, their issues and potential solutions. Put these to one side.

Get savvy: By all means have a recipe for your client meetings, but also be prepared to improvise and learn from what happens. Adopt a beginner’s mind.

Thanks as always for reading.